Lately I’ve had a difficult time concentrating, and sometimes when that happens my mind turns back to some of my favorite authors. I’ve found that like meditation, reconsidering their words can be soothing and focusing. This time I’ve been visiting W.H. Auden. That will be no surprise to those who know I’m a big fan of his poem The More Loving One, which I’m often caught quoting on outdoor walks at night.
Openly gay and very religious in his later years, Auden considered himself married to his partner Chester Kallman, and along with other of his works, The More Loving One focused on Auden’s fascination with unrequited love, including what Auden often felt to be his unmatched love for his partner. But it contains a wonderful ambiguity. Reading it, I can’t decide who Auden meant as the object of his love in this poem. I see love for another person but also something else: the resigned view of one who’s decided that the universe and its deities aren’t everything that we’d like them to be. But in both cases, the speaker has decided to carry on loving, because being a loving person is what he prefers himself to be.
So what does this have to do with thinking?
The book I’ve been re-reading is Auden’s The Prolific and the Devourer, a short philosophical book that divides the world into people who live by creating and people who live by controlling and profiting from the creative work of others. That makes some harsh and unfair judgements, but in the middle of it, Auden talks about Christianity and something that he sees in the teachings of Jesus that we rarely hear in religious circles today.
Time and again Jesus attacks those who think of the good life as something contrary to our animal nature, that the flesh is not divine. The philosophers had all said: “You do not of course want to love your neighbor but you must because it is your duty and you will be punished if you don’t.”
Jesus on the other hand says, “You can love your neighbor, not because you ought to, but because that is the nature of the particular biological species to which you belong. You are neither an ape nor a tiger by nature, and if you want proof of this, if you want to know what your biological nature is like, look at your children, whom you must admit do love and trust their neighbor naturally unless their trust is betrayed, and quite irrespective of their sex or class or color or morality, to your great embarrassment.”
Now, many Christian literalists will take issue with this, but there is a scientific element to Auden’s argument.
The biologists have confirmed Jesus both as to our biological descent and as to the relation of love and intelligence. They have shown that the stock from which man springs was non-aggressive, affectionate and social, with a communal life based on a larger social unit than the family, and a long period of immaturity needing parental care.
Along those same lines, Gerald Huther later argued in a little book called The Compassionate Brain that the primary reason that we have such big brains is to have empathy, the ability to imagine and feel what someone else is thinking and feeling (and considering that, just think how much bigger our brains still need to be!) But along with empathy, something else is needed for our brains to show intelligence:
In the study of intelligent behavior in animals they have also found that intelligence only functions when the animal is unafraid. An atmosphere of love and confidence is essential.
If the problem set is too difficult or the investigator is impatient the reaction of fear sets in and paralyses the intelligence. In other words, love biologically precedes intelligence. Man is the most intelligent animal precisely because he is the most affectionate. [emphasis mine]
Is Auden saying that smart people make better lovers? OK, that’s a stretch, but he does make a good argument to me that better and more fearless lovers become smarter people. In times like these, who couldn’t use a little help keeping up?
Quoting another of my favorite authors,
In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world which no longer exists.
Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition
So carry on.
If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me. excerpted from W.H. Auden, The More Loving One
Now excuse me, I have some nasty bugs to track down in my code.